January 19, 2002
7:29 AM   Subscribe

"Any sufficiently advanced form of technology is indistinguishable from magic." -- Arthur C. Clarke
Apparently we've reached that point in the US.
posted by Steven Den Beste (43 comments total)
Granted, people need to know about things that endanger them, but aside from the absurdity of some of the questions, isn't that the whole point? Scott McNealy has bet the future of Sun on society not needing to know how things work. Commoditization equals taken for granted.
posted by machaus at 7:40 AM on January 19, 2002

Apparently a well-concieved, well-constructed, coherently-worded study is also indistiguishable from magic. It may well be true that American society is scientifically illiterate, but this kind of crap poll won't tell us anything (except that if you trust idiotic polls such as these, you are one of the very illiterates in question).

Sorry, but I media hype disguised as Science really tweaks my knobs.
posted by glennie at 7:53 AM on January 19, 2002

glennie, you've certainly got a point there.

Nearly half of American adults believe incorrectly that they would risk electrocution by using a portable phone while in the bathtub.

Does this show ignorance or a very generic form of carefulness? Do we want a society of people who are busy cacluating their chances of getting killed if they balance an 8" tv on their legs in the bath? "Okay 110v AC running through 200lbs of mass minus water with a 23% chance of completing a circuit through my heart..."

There's ignorance and then there's erring on the side of caution. Joe Sixpack knows his cell-phone batteries are not mom's old cordless NiCads. He might want to avoid finding out the hard way how far battery technology has come and makes a safe, but wrong, assumption.

On the other hand, 82 percent correctly agreed that ``a car operates through a series of explosions.''

Nice wording, imagine if they used "burned gasoline" in that question.

Only 76 percent of the men and 54 percent of the women claimed they could explain to a friend how a telephone call gets from point A to point B.

Yeah I want to meet the 76% of people who can explain an analog to digital conversion to me, how a switching station works, the fundamentals of fiber optics, and the phone numbering system.

These are piss poor questions and so bad that the poll itself is a testament to how useless polls can be. Worse, the significance of knowing how certain things work is virtually nill. The benefits of a technologically advanced society is that you aren't constatly repairing and reworking common tools. The tech ins-and-outs don't matter as much, we're too busy learning the ins-and-outs of things that aren't more of less automated for us like how to find a job, save money, understand politics, raise a child, find fulfillment, etc.
posted by skallas at 8:20 AM on January 19, 2002

Yeah, that poll was pretty donkey ... and being a donkey, I don't throw that word around lightly.
posted by donkeyschlong at 8:25 AM on January 19, 2002

What is a cell phone? something people have when they are put in jail?
posted by Postroad at 8:28 AM on January 19, 2002

Only 26 percent of those questioned correctly chose ``true'' when asked whether FM radios operate free of static.

Maybe I'm not understanding something here, but my FM radio sure doesn't operate free of static. Apparently the authors of the poll have never had bad reception.
posted by skwm at 8:53 AM on January 19, 2002

An interesting relevant quote:

The vast majority of Americans do not know they do not have the skills to earn a living in our increasingly technological society-US Sec. of Ed. in 1994

from here, a much better, if a little outdated, article on this subject.
posted by plaino at 9:06 AM on January 19, 2002

Imagine that! A panel of people with doctorates in the sciences concluding that the average American is stupid and incompetent, and should study more science. How surprising.

The frightening part of the results - to me - is not that Americans scored low, but rather that a panel of so-called "experts" would claim that something appearing to be a screening application for potential contestants on Jeopardy is actually a legitimate assessment of a population's scientific knowledge

This thing sounds far more like a group of experts doing a poll in order to confirm the preconceived notion of the group of experts. Brings to mind that old saying ...

"Four out of five experts agree that the fifth expert is an idiot ...".
posted by MidasMulligan at 9:17 AM on January 19, 2002

"82 percent correctly agreed that ``a car operates through a series of explosions.''

And 82% of the study victims, and the author, are just plain wrong. They are internal combustion engines, not internal detonation engines.
posted by dglynn at 9:29 AM on January 19, 2002

You can get more detailed information about this survey via this page on the site of the International Technology Education Association, which sponsored it. The survey questions and data are both available as PDF files.
posted by Owen Boswarva at 9:30 AM on January 19, 2002

In our increasing reliance on technology, and the exponential growth of applications for that technology, it's not surprising that people don't know (or probably more accurately don't care) how it all works, and the article doesn't manage to grasp the basic concept, which is that the average person doesn't need to know.

It's precisely because of the rapid pace of technology that professionals are forced into more and more specialized fields. It's just not possible to know all there is to know in multiple fields, so we have a number of people in each field that we, the public, rely on to make sure that their area of specialization works. Average people don't need to know how a telephone switching network operates, they just want to pick up the phone and get a dial tone. If it doesn't work, there's someone who specializes in that field who does know how it works and how to fix it. It's the same with an automobile. Why should John Q. Public care how it works when there are competent professionals out there whose job it is to know how it works and be able to repair it?

There's just way too much knowledge to be had to expect the average person to be versed in all of it.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 9:38 AM on January 19, 2002

The International Technology Education Association makes their questions and data available in browser-unfriendly .pdf format only, instead of something convenient like ASCII or HTML. How's that for technological illiteracy?
posted by Loudmax at 9:39 AM on January 19, 2002

dglynn: I was under the impression that an explosion is merely a sort of combustion which rapidly generates a quantity of gas, thereby creating pressure. Is this not the case?

posted by Mars Saxman at 9:42 AM on January 19, 2002

Not to reveal myself as one of the uninitiated, but exactly why would a cell phone battery not shock you when you put it in the water? What if, say, you threw a car battery or two in the bathtub. Would that do the trick?

Does the water act like a giant resistor? My vague physics recollections are telling me that the current from a car battery is too small to do anything. But if you used a battery with more current, it would cook you. No?

Someone explain before I have to get out my physics books from college. (noooooooooo.)
posted by dr_emory at 9:44 AM on January 19, 2002

Dr. Emory, there are a number of reason why, but the biggest one is that the voltage in the cell phone battery isn't high enough to affect you. Anything under about 60 volts cannot harm you. (Thus 12V car batteries can't either.) Fresh water is a terrible conductor anyway, but the important point is that your skin is also a resistor. It takes at least 60V for enough current to flow to be dangerous.

If you touch 110AC and you're not grounded, you'll get quite a jolt but all it's going to do is to scare you. (I know about that one first-hand.) There are two reasons: the only current flow will be because of the capacitance of your body, which is low, and in any case the zap will make your muscles convulse and usually that will remove contact. If you're grounded, on the other hand, it can kill you.

Skwm, an FM radio with sufficient signal will not be affected by static. What sounds like crap in the audio will be due to the carrier being inadequate. (It's also possible for static to ride into the electronics of a radio in the audio stage, even though what comes out of the RF stage is clean.)

On an AM radio, even if the signal is very strong and the electronics is excellent, a nearby lightning strike will still cause a loud burst of crap, and there's nothing that can be done about it.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 9:59 AM on January 19, 2002

"the voltage in the cell phone battery isn't high enough to affect you. Anything under about 60 volts cannot harm you."

And here I was convinced it was the amperage.

There's a good article here that explains electric shock in fairly basic terms, and which also gives a good quote that can apply to just about anything:

"Do not attempt anything that you are not entirely capable of handling."
posted by mr_crash_davis at 10:13 AM on January 19, 2002

here's a report on a poll that asked more direct questions.

More than half the adults surveyed didn't know that the Earth revolves around the sun...

There's really no explaining away that one.
posted by malphigian at 10:46 AM on January 19, 2002

Tangentially, malphigian, Sean Hannity was polling the average person-on-the-street yesterday with three questions.

1) Name the President of the United States
2) Name the Vice-President of the United States
3) Recite the Pledge of Allegiance

A few got both #1 and #2. None got all three. However, I was most disturbed by the 22-year-old college graduate who failed to answer #3. He wasn't just unfamiliar with it, he didn't know it at all, even with prompting by the interviewer. How in the hell do you get through sixteen years of school without learning that? Is it time to make Schoolhouse Rock mandatory viewing for freshmen?

posted by mr_crash_davis at 10:58 AM on January 19, 2002

I knew just about all the things that were said to be asked, but I'm still thick as a board! please advise. :(
posted by mcsweetie at 11:03 AM on January 19, 2002

You are correct, Mars, but in my defense I offer;


a. A release of mechanical, chemical, or nuclear energy in a sudden and often violent manner with the generation of high temperature and usually with the release of gases.



1. The process of burning.

I think the difference might be in the "sudden and often violent" part of the definition, although most technical professionals in engines or explosives would snort derisively at our imprecise use of language. Hence, technical lingo.

My original point was the question was poorly worded, with the result that some of the 18% who got it "wrong" probably were the people with at least some understanding of how engines work.
posted by dglynn at 11:05 AM on January 19, 2002

methinks steven isn't quite the expert he makes himself out to be. The thing that actually kills you is the current, not the voltage (granted, higher voltage will produce a higher current, but bear with me). your skin (when dry) has a resistance around 100kOhms. But this can be reduced significantly (around 1000 Ohms) when your hands are sweaty, oily, or wet (i.e. in the bath). this is important because current and voltage are related by v=i*r (where i is the current and r is the resistance). if you'd like to see a chart of what happens in the human body at different current levels, see here. If we assume that a person in the bathtub has a resistance around 1000 ohms, and he/she's taking a bath with a 12V car battery, they would experience a current of 12v/1000 Ohms = 12mA, so he probably wouldn't die, unless the electricity had an easy entrance to the inside of his body (without the protection of skin, the body's resistance is reduced to about 100 Ohms). (here, read a story from the darwin awards about a man who killed himself with a car battery).
posted by jnthnjng at 11:06 AM on January 19, 2002

Isn't the real hallmark of a mature technology the ability to use it without knowing it intimately? People can operate cars without knowing how internal combustion engines work, ditto for phones and radios. A lot of things go through a transition between being only for enthusiasts and being for everyone (computers seem to be somewhat stuck, depending on your point of view). Those that don't remain hobbies or curiosities.

What's more important, knowing how spark plugs work or knowing that it's bad to have gasoline near open flame?
posted by tommasz at 11:08 AM on January 19, 2002

People don't need to know how their plumbing system works, because they can hire plumbers that do. Otherwise, there'd be a lot of plumbers out of work.

With so much technology surrounding us, I think that selective ignorance isn't necessarily a bad thing. I can piece a computer together, install software, even make some basic software... but I know squat about fixing a car. Does that mean that I'm technologically stupid? No. It just means that I choose to focus on things that are more relevant to me.
posted by mkn at 11:09 AM on January 19, 2002

Skwm, an FM radio with sufficient signal will not be affected by static. What sounds like crap in the audio will be due to the carrier being inadequate.

Unless the point is to judge whether people know industry jargon an answer which is correct only if you redefine a term to exclude almost everything it is normally used to describe, it's a bad question.

FM is considerably more noise tolerant than AM but anyone who's listened to a radio while driving around knows that you get random noise which falls under any dictionary definition of the word "static".

If we had a copy of the rest of the test, I'm sure there'd be more problems like this. It's a common problem with any test which attempts compress complex issues into multiple choice - remember those IQ tests where you could come up for a valid rationale for each of the choices in the "what is the next element in this sequence" or "which item does not belong" questions?

This bothers me, as I wanted to like this article - anyone who's worked in a technical field knows that it's not uncommon to see ignorant and superstitious behaviour even among purportedly well-educated people.

I've met CTOs of fair-size companies who don't know anything about either the technology or business issues to their company's core products. I've interview people with a string of "senior programmer" or "network administrator" positions on their resumes who know less about the basic properties of the Internet than your average dog.

This sort of ignorance even carries a certain cachet - ever hear "Oh, I'm a big-picture person" proudly proclaimed by someone who is obviously as ignorant of the big picture as they are of the details behind it?

posted by adamsc at 11:17 AM on January 19, 2002

"I've met CTOs of fair-size companies who don't know anything about either the technology or business issues to their company's core products."

adamsc, have you been touring my company's home office?

Again I think we're delving into the specialization aspect. CTOs (at least in my experience) don't come up through the ranks of the technology department, they're business graduates. They know the cost breakdowns for upgrading from base-T to Gigabit, but they couldn't connect a server to a switch if their lives depended on it. On the other hand, if I had control of a multi-million dollar technology budget, I'd advise everyone I knew to short our stock because it's going into the toilet.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 11:29 AM on January 19, 2002

Again I think we're delving into the specialization aspect. CTOs (at least in my experience) don't come up through the ranks of the technology department, they're business graduates. They know the cost breakdowns for upgrading from base-T to Gigabit, but they couldn't connect a server to a switch if their lives depended on it.
Oh how I wish that was more common... Unless you're at a technology company, they should be focused on the business needs & budgets and relying on their experts for technical advice.

What's amazed me are how many don't seem to understand either part of the job. When a business major doesn't even understand basic finance, management, product development (say the relationship between time, money and features or the benefits of finding out what people want *before* deciding what to give them), etc. but wants to tell technologists how to do their jobs, you have an epic disaster.

One of the biggest contributors to this is applied ignorance: "I don't understand the details so they can't be important".

posted by adamsc at 11:57 AM on January 19, 2002

"Unless you're at a technology company..."

That's the problem, adamsc. I am.

"One of the biggest contributors to this is applied ignorance: "I don't understand the details so they can't be important". "

Our CTO is this man. Thankfully, we have a very capable level of management just beneath him, so they're able to talk him out of a lot of decisions that would, in my opinion, be disastrous.

This is a CTO for a billion-dollar-plus market cap technology company who regularly reads the message boards on Yahoo! and the sends the messages to us as if they were somehow representative of our customer base instead of 99% Yahoo! troll-fodder.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 12:18 PM on January 19, 2002

That poor woman. Maybe she needs to call a telexorcist.

Hmmm. I sense a totally new business segment opening up...
posted by mr_crash_davis at 12:27 PM on January 19, 2002

Re: the poll. Why is there a question on the location of roads in communities? To be honest, though, I'm a bit more concerned about the inability of American citizens to answer basic questions about the government. Which report of ignorance worries you more?
posted by Charmian at 12:40 PM on January 19, 2002

jnthnjng, I know all that, but I was trying to explain it to a layman. For example, I also didn't go into the fact that sometimes current going from one place to another will flow over the skin rather than going through and into underlying tissues.

It's very complicated, but did you really want a Ph.D thesis?
posted by Steven Den Beste at 1:47 PM on January 19, 2002

How in the hell do you get through sixteen years of school without learning that?

I'm pretty sure I've never heard (or said) the pledge of allegiance in real time; the only reason I know (generally) how it goes is because of old movies, and articles about the insertion of "under god" into it. (I went to school thru 8th grade in public school in NYC, and then boarding school in Massachusetts.)

Asking people if they could explain things (rather than, to explain things) was just ridiculous. I've been asking people recently if they know how electricity is generated because I got curious about it and looked it up a few weeks ago, and was somehow pleasantly surprised by how understandable it was. Anyway, lotsa people (especially men, for some reason) say that they do, but when pressed to explain it can't connect all the dots - they'll know some of the basics and kinda fudge over the parts they can't explain. In fact, when I was looking it up, I found a lot of sources that would explain the obvious bits that I knew, like steam turning turbines, but not mention the element that actually gets the current moving in the wire - the magnet.

Some people I talked to recognized the answer from junior high science classes after I told them, but no one could come up with it on their own. The most popular guess when i pressed people to explain how the spinning turbines turned into electrical current was that there was some sort of spark or friction.

If people were more willing to admit when they don't know something, they'd probably learn more. As people on this thread have been saying, not knowing how something works doesn't mean you lack intelligence, and knowing the mechanics of something isn't indicative of a nimble mind - it's what you do with information that's most important.

A basic level of education regarding knowledge of one's place and time (history and geography of humanity and of our universe) seems more important to me - of course, I was a liberal arts major. Though I am often disappointed by how little I'd be able to create if stranded on a desert isle...
posted by mdn at 1:57 PM on January 19, 2002

I prefer to live by Clarke's Consequence: Any technology that is distinguishable from magic is not sufficiently advanced.

Now, can someone tell me why ordinary cars are still made with manual gearboxes? :-)

posted by aeschenkarnos at 2:58 PM on January 19, 2002

Is insufficiently advanced magic indistiguishable from technology?
posted by Grangousier at 3:29 PM on January 19, 2002

I agree that the poll was ill-concieved and even kind of condescending towards our non-techie brethren.
That said, technological ignorance can make for some amusing moments. I remember, for instance my girlfreinds late, lamented, and technologically impaired father. When confronted with our voice mail, he would invariably say "Tell Jon and Lisa that I called, OK." Apparently, he was under the impression that a small being lived inside our phone who would hunt us down and pass along the message. Heh-Heh, I still sometimes wish I had introduced the old duffer to the Internet.
Of course, as someone who sells technology for a living-often to older folk, I can see the mix of eagerness and befuddlement on their faces when confronted with the latest gizmo. I certainly don't hold their bafflement against them. Telegraph and Model T to Internet and Palm Pilot is a long way to go in one lifetime. God only knows how us 'Net jockeys will seem 40 years down the line.
posted by jonmc at 4:12 PM on January 19, 2002

I think that Clarke was referring to the perception of what the technology does, not perceiver's ability to understand its workings. He was talking about the sort of situations where someone from our time travels back to the 12th century with a Harrier jet, and the way it works is so far beyond anything the people from that time have thought about, that they can't even come up with a theory for how it works.

I don't know how electricity works exactly; but I have a vague idea of the sort of principles and components involved; if I saw someone, say, teleport, I would have to say that all bets were off; it could be an advanced machine or it could be magic.
posted by bingo at 4:14 PM on January 19, 2002

I wish I had the electronic text so I wouldn't botch the paraphrase, but there's a great passage in Delillo's White Noise about this. The preternaturally wise kid, the one zooming around on his tricycle through the book, shuts up his professor father at the dinner table by saying (remember, I'm paraphrasing): You think we're all so much more advanced than cavemen? Go ahead, go back the campfire and tell all the cavemen about electricity. Tell them all about how it makes things move, and makes lights shine. What will you do when they ask you to show them how this magic works? Why wouldn't they think you're just a lunatic talking about demons?

The point being that the advanced intelligence modern men think to be their own disappears without the equipment of modern life. The intelligence of much of our lives, which we think to be our own, actually resides in the aggregate intelligence of the machinery (and its attendant documentation) around us. We ourselves probably add no more intelligence to what we're given than prehistoric man did.
posted by argybarg at 5:29 PM on January 19, 2002

My personal experience with this is that because I work with computers, people make this leap in logic that I am good at math. In reality I suck big time at math and praise [Deity of Choice] that someone invented calculators.

It's the classic mistake some of us geeks make when introducing friends/family members to technology by explaining how it works - "see this is the microprocessor and yada yada yada". It's nice to know, but most people could give a crap. They just want to know "how to work it". There's a million things to adapt and adjust to in the life of the average citizen, I think not knowing "cool to know" technology stuff is more than excusable.
posted by owillis at 7:47 PM on January 19, 2002

They are internal combustion engines, not internal detonation engines.

Except when they're diesel engines.
posted by normy at 9:31 PM on January 19, 2002

Perhaps, bleakly, it isn't just technology which they find indistinguishable from magic. Can't help feeling it's related, somehow.
posted by RichLyon at 1:50 AM on January 20, 2002

My surprise reached a climax, however, when I found incidentally that he was ignorant of the Copernican Theory and of the composition of the Solar System. That any civilized human being in this nineteenth century should not be aware that the earth travelled round the sun appeared to be to me such an extraordinary fact that I could hardly realize it.

"You appear to be astonished," he said, smiling at my expression of surprise. "Now that I do know it I shall do my best to forget it."

"To forget it!"

"You see," he explained, "I consider that a man's brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skilful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones."

"But the Solar System!" I protested.

"What the deuce is it to me?" he interrupted impatiently; "you say that we go round the sun. If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work."

-- Dr. Watson describes Mr. Sherlock Holmes. Arthur Conan Doyle, A Study In Scarlet.


> Isn't the real hallmark of a mature technology the ability
> to use it without knowing it intimately?

Civilization advances by the number of operations we can carry out without thinking about them.

-- Alfred North Whitehead
posted by jfuller at 3:26 PM on January 20, 2002

Abstraction is a wonderful thing.
posted by Foosnark at 10:32 AM on January 21, 2002

More than half the adults surveyed didn't know that the Earth revolves around the sun...

But it's equally true that the Sun revolves around the Earth. It just depends on how you choose your reference frame. And frankly, for most non-astronomical puposes, it makes more sense to just take the Earth as a "stationary" reference frame.

It would be pretty awkward and silly if instead of saying, "What time is sunrise tomorrow? or "In the winter, the sun never gets very high in Alaska," we insisted on saying, "What time does the eastern horizon rotate far enough that the sun is visible?" or "In the winter, the Earth's tilt is such that even when the Earth is turned so that this longitude is directly facing the sun, Alaska is still not facing the sun directly."
posted by straight at 7:22 AM on January 22, 2002

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